Moving Mountains

31 Mar 2015

Let’s say you’re an independent developer, and you want to convince the most profitable and successful tech company in history to make a change that benefits you. How might you go about that?

Naturally you start by filing a Radar or Getting the FO, but beyond that, it is infamously hard to determine who at Apple is actually responsible for your issue. It would be nice if every developer had a knowledgeable and responsive Developer Relations rep they could contact, but given that there are hundreds of thousands of iOS developers, that’s hardly practical. The same is true on Google’s and Microsoft’s platforms — at a certain scale, they can’t practically listen to every voice. As such, we reach to the most classic of persuasive methods: the critical article.

A critical article about some Apple technology or policy is like a kind of thought virus. If you make a compelling argument, you can seed it on the open internet, and by its nature the article will spread among people who care about Apple and its success or failure. Naturally, this includes Apple employees. While it may be impossible from the outside to discern who is responsible for a particular iOS 8 usability issue, a thoughtful critique of the problem has a decent chance of making its way to that team and driving change for the better.

Running to the press

The introduction to the App Store Review Guidelines give this advice:

If your App is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.

A lot of folks have argued that this is hypocritical to say, since negative press around a ridiculous rejection does seem to expedite resolution. At its root though, there is some truth: if you do a press interview feeding the latest “Apple is doomed because they rejected my fart app” article on Valleywag or Forbes, then Apple PR and the App Store team aren’t going to be enthusiastic about helping you, even if they may have their hand forced. On the other hand, if you write some thoughtful criticism on some actual problems with one of their policies or APIs that happens to be circulated in the press, there will be people at Apple who want to solve the problems. There’s a difference between trashing a company and criticizing their policies.

Photo: Rubin Starset

In his recent short novel “Fear of Apple,” Eli Schiff argued that independent iOS developers aren’t critical enough of the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to make a living on the App Store. Now, I don’t know what iOS developers Eli has been talking to, since I’ve seen more articles, talks, and rants on this topic than any other in the community. What was more interesting to me, though, was that Eli attributed the supposed lack of criticism to a fear of Apple.

While there are enough “vengeful Apple” stories from the Jobs era to give some long-time Apple developers pause, it’s unclear to me what potential critics are afraid that a modern Apple might do to them. Pulling some indie’s app from the store because they wrote a critical blog post is hardly Apple’s MO. Hell, I called the iOS shift key the “the worst thing to happen in the history of software” and I privately got positive feedback from folks at Apple. As Marco put it:

No sensible developer should be worried about angering “Apple” by fairly expressing legitimate criticism.

There is no single “Apple” to anger, as the company comprises thousands of people across many different departments, all of whom can think for themselves. I’m sure some of them can’t take criticism well and may be vindictive — any large group of people will contain almost every personality type — but that’s not the attitude of any of the Apple people I’ve interacted with.

Admittedly, if for some reason Apple PR noticed your dissection of serious bugs in some new API, they wouldn’t be pleased — but how often is your indie app business dependent on Apple’s PR department? Contrast that to how often you benefit from the work Apple’s API teams are doing on the many technologies we depend on to build our businesses. Consider how much you benefit when they improve the platforms you and your customers live on. Every fix you might motivate could affect hundreds of millions of users around the globe. For me, the math is clear: if there’s a chance you can help Apple build better software, it’s worth writing something critical.

That said, the nature of developers’ critical pieces is going to be different than the dramapress’. We understand how hard software is, we know that Apple’s designers and engineers made the tradeoffs they did for a reason, and we actually want to effect positive change, not just get pageviews because we’ve riled up a frothing mass of anti-Apple noise. Apple makes various products and decisions that are interesting to talk about. Many of them are good, some of them are bad. In the end though, they’re a company made of people, and if we want to actually convince them to do better, we need to do just that: convince them.

As a group, indies are saddened and frustrated by all the business challenges that unsustainable pricing and oversupply have created. We have been and will continue to be critical of specific App Store decisions, like lack of upgrades, that make it harder to keep writing good software for iOS and the Mac. We should continue to push issues like App Store search that hurt users and developers alike every day. Still, yelling at Apple for the fact there are 500,000 people flooding the store with mediocre apps isn’t going to effect change.

Independent app developers live in the shadow of a mostly benevolent giant that can at a whim create and destroy entire markets. We’re usually too small to be intentionally slighted, so we have the freedom to speak up that folks at larger companies might not have. We may fear Apple the same way we fear nature: it’s a powerful force we don’t control. Unlike nature, though, it’s a force that’s trying to do good, and it’s one we can influence - if we make a compelling argument.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.